Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Zack and Wiki: Quest for Barbaros' Treasure

Let me make one thing clear from the start: Zack and Wiki is not a Wikipedia game. I'm sorry to give you the bad news so bluntly, but we might as well get the disappointment out of the way up front. It'll be better for you in the long run. It builds character.

Anyway, in case you haven't heard of it, Zack and Wiki is a new Wii game by Capcom. It's perhaps best known for being the "media darling" of IGN's Matt Casamassina and Mark Bozon, who spearheaded a "Buy Zack and Wiki" campaign during the months before the game was released, running the risk of looking like fools (even moreso than usual; see the photo below) if the game turned out to suck when it finally came out. They decided that such a campaign was necessary because Zack and Wiki has a stupid name. They much preferred its working title, Project Treasure Island Z. In fact they hated the actual title so much that they started referring to it exclusively as "Z&W" and then "Z-Dub," which is obviously much less stupid.

I have to admit that the "Buy Zack and Wiki" campaign sort of worked on me. Not that I based my decision to buy it on the opinions of IGN, which would just be absurd, but they did at least raise my awareness of its existence, and after further investigation I was able to determine that it did look like a game I was interested in playing.

So now the game is finally out, and the question on everyone's minds is: does it live up to the hype? Forget what those guys told you -- I'm here to give you the real scoop on Zack and Wiki.

...but it turns out they were pretty much right and the game is jawsome. I don't know if I would agree with the assertion that everyone should buy it, but I'm glad that I did.

Zack and Wiki is basically a point-and-click adventure/puzzle game that's about using the right item at the right time to accomplish a goal. It plays somewhat similarly to the old Sierra or LucasArts adventure games, but combined with something like The Adventures of Lolo. Instead of one large world with puzzles and items spread out all over the place, Zack and Wiki is set up as a series of individual levels, each of which puts a bunch of obstacles between your character and a treasure chest, and your job is to overcome those obstacles and get the treasure.

"What kind of obstacles?" you may well ask. The answer varies widely. Some puzzles are based on principles of physics, some involve creatures that can be turned into items, some involve items that can be turned into creatures, some have killer robots, mad science, paintings that do stuff, etc. There's a lot of variety, is basically what I'm saying.

You play as Zack, a kid who wants to be an infamous pirate, and you're accompanied by a gold monkey named Wiki, who has the power to turn into a bell that can turn other living things into various tools. You control the duo by pointing and clicking at things on the screen with the Wii remote, or shaking it to ring Wiki's bell and turn stuff into other stuff. Even though there's no real rhyme or reason to what each creature will turn into, you'll pretty quickly get a sense of what each animal can do for you. Complicating matters is the fact that Zack has no sort of inventory system and can only carry one thing at a time. Besides the animal items, there are various things built into each stage that you can interact with, usually by moving the Wii remote in some sort of gimmicky fashion. Some of these motions work pretty well, and some of them don't. Personally I could take or leave them, but if you're one of those people who are like, "I paid for motion sensing and damn it, I'm gonna use it!" then I guess you'll enjoy them.

Anyway, the puzzles are where the game really excels. Like I said, there's a lot of variety to them, and the solutions usually make some kind of sense, at least in video game logic (of course putting weight on a pedestal will make a bridge appear; why wouldn't it?). If you do get stumped, you can use up a "hint doll" and get a vision of what your next move should be, but those dolls ain't free, and in fact the prices go up every time you buy another one, so you'll probably want to use them sparingly (or you could just look up the solution on GameFAQs, but if you do that, you're really only hurting yourself).

This game also brings back the lost art of instant deaths. The game encourages you to just try messing with everything to see what happens, and sometimes you'll be rewarded for doing that, but other times it will kill you. That might sound incredibly frustrating, but it's actually not that bad. For one thing, you have the option of reviving yourself and undoing the move that killed you, using a system similar to that of the hint dolls. But even if you run out of those, the worst that can happen is you have to restart the levels, and most of the time the levels are short enough that once you know what you need to do, it's not that big an inconvenience to go through the motions again (there are a few exceptions with really big levels where you have to wait for Zack to walk long distances).

It's that fact, though, that initially led me to worry about the game's replayability. There are enough levels to keep you busy for a couple of days, depending on how long you play each time, but then what do you do? Fortunately they've taken this into consideration. Your performance on each level is graded based on how efficiently you solve the puzzles. For example, if it takes you a couple of tries to move some items into the right position, you don't get as many points as you would if you got it right on the first try. Additionally, sometimes there are alternate ways to solve puzzles, which might get you a different amount of points. So you can always go back and try to improve your score/ranking on each level.

If, on the other hand, you feel that playing for high scores has been pointless since 1987, there's still other stuff to do. Secret treasures are hidden throughout the levels, whether it's stashes of coins, collectible pixel art of characters from past Capcom games, or a skeleton guy who makes you play a rhythm game for a treasure map, which you can then use with another character who will go out and hunt down the actual treasure for you. That guy can also help you find other treasures to fill up little galleries of characters and creatures from the game, as well as sound/music tests and also probably some other stuff I don't remember off the top of my head. The point is, if you're a completist, you can play this game for a while. There's much more to do than meets the eye.

So that's about it for the game mechanics. What else? The story is pretty much irrelevant. It gets the job done setting up the premise of the game and then mercifully gets out of the way for most of the time, but if you must know, you're trying to collect pieces of this skeleton pirate made of gold so he can come back to life and give you his ship. There's also a hot female pirate who is your rival and will probably be the subject of a lot of fan art before too long.

The graphics are presented in a cel-shaded style that's somewhat similiar to Wind Waker but with better character models. It's very colorful and quite nice, and each 'world' has a different theme, most of which are fairly interesting to look at. The sound is a lot of various noises made by Japanese people, but no full-fledged voice acting (thank god). The music is well done but I didn't find it particularly memorable.

Anyway. The point and click adventure genre is hardly new, but it is still fun, and this game brings some interesting new twists to it. There's a lot to do, and it's all very well polished and presented with style and a unique charm. If that kind of gameplay sounds at all appealing to you, I highly recommend checking out Zack and Wiki. It's the most fun I've had playing a new game in quite some time. And if I may editorialize a bit here, I have to say that it's really a sad state that the industry is in when a jawsome, unique game like this is in danger of being overlooked in favor of games about space marines. So buy Zack and Wiki and support the blue sky in games.

Thank you, and good night.

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